Some twenty years ago I used to “do pottery” at the local FE college. Two hours on a Monday evening and a kebab on the way home. Today, courtesy of a birthday present (thank you, Lizzie), I was back – same room, probably some of the same tools, same mistakes of misplaced omnipotence and self-criticism. Different tutor, still good: thank you Activate Learning, and thank you, Graham, for your skills as a tutor.
Tutor intro. Tour, health and safety. “No running with scissors” was not mentioned – but beware the dangerous chemicals and the clay dust. And then into the task. A demo which showed how very easy it was.
First attempt. Dismal. In trying to make something small, I had something fiddly, and the techniques I hoped to use needed to be applied more delicately and with a more practised hand. A small pot became a pile of used clay and my ambition took a bash. Been here before.
Second go: The longer attempt and really (with a lunch break) the work of the day, 11:00-3:30, went a little better. A larger piece, but it still took a long time and I had to unguess shortcuts, to keep the pace, to refine and design. I watched smooth surfaces appear for other people when my effort looked like something the Beaker People would have looked at and said whatever their language had for “Meh.”
The work later in the afternoon was not without challenge but did allow a certain amount of “distract and redirect” as I used slip to decorate the misshapen vase. Plans and designs revised, the learner supported and encouraged – and forgiven, if that’s the right word – for assumptions and wrong turns.
What went right. Well, it wasn’t perfect, and I hesitate to think how I would have felt if it were being marked, and certainly on such an initial piece of learning and creation. Would I have tried harder? Paid more attention? Worried more? I am reminded of Margaret Donaldson’s warning (in Children’s Minds) that
” …if an activity is rewarded by an external prize or token…it is less likely to be enjoyed.”
and the next point might be (for me and the pottery) that I might have decided, given the freely chosen nature of activity, not to participate. Not everyone is the same: for some, the medal for Salsa or the position in the running club league is an important factor: but this is not universal. I am brought to consider pedagogy and curriculum because of my engagement as a learner.
I wonder if every teacher/educationalist should be asked to go back to something and try to think about their learning. The “There is Only Knowledge” team might find that no amount of knowledge organisers substitute for the feeling of clay, or the knack of smoothing a wet joint into place, and the “Experience is Everything” crew might find something too, about where clay comes from, how its history has been so close to human development, how art and colour and chemistry work together. We might find common ground; we might learn something important. So too might the pigeon-fancying behaviourists (particularly watching themselves when things go wrong) and the “It’s All About Self-regulation” group, watching how as adults we motivate and self-regulate (and help others to regulate) with breaks for a drink, chatting, swearing…. And my contention would be that when we observe our own learning we are acutely aware of the humanity of the learner. This isn’t a suggestion that everyone should take up dancing or running, or pottery, but perhaps that we might have a richer professional development experience if all CPD – or a large part of it – were directed to reflection on how we learn, and then ask how we might apply those insights to our own pedagogy. We would have to be bold and committed for this to work as trainers or learners: genuine reflection is hard.
Observing ourselves as learners is not easy – but it has an important advantage over watching our students or being observed by our leaders, and that is that we are less free to persuade ourselves “the children really love it” (or “won’t notice” in the case of baseline assessment) or “the students lap it up.” We are certainly much less able to disentangle ourselves from the learner’s impatience, or the sense of a desire to build the perfect pot (the photos show I didn’t quite manage this) – even the sense of envy or discouragement at the gorgeous things other people produce. And in Higher Education we might look again at our modes of assessment: writing at the same time as our students are on the essay treadmill we put them on is a revelation!
I want to conclude with praise for the kinds of tutors who work as my tutor did today: a judicious mix of direct “do-it-like-this” instruction, demonstration, leaving us to try, and advice. It seems to me the best way to respond to the humanity of the learner is by listening, responding but never letting go of the role of instructor where it is necessary. There are times when each of these is needed, and it is the professional educator (not the politician, I would contend, but that is by-the-by) who is best placed to find the way to teach. Top tips too easily become high horses (if that turn of phrase works) and teachers are better than that. As Donaldson concludes (and I will too), we have to keep trying
to help our children meet the demands we impose on them
and to do that, a deficit model of the child learner is simply not enough:
…we must not call them stupid. We must rather call ourselves indifferent or afraid.
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